Gac Filipaj, a refugee from the former Yugoslavia, arrived in America not knowing a word of English.
He came here with nothing but a dream and an unwavering commitment to realizing it. He landed a job as a janitor at Columbia University, doing the most unpleasant tasks such as emptying trash and cleaning toilets. Rather than feeling victimized or hopeless, he viewed this work as a platform for growth.
Filipaj ended work each night at 11 p.m., which is when his schoolwork began. While others were watching late-night television, Filipaj was routinely engaged in all-night study sessions. This determined soul worked hard and sacrificed. He fought through the setbacks and had the persistence to continue even when it was uncomfortable.
Twelve years after his journey began, at age 52, Filipaj graduated with honors from Columbia University. As others with privilege complained about their meal plan at the dorms or a bad night at a fraternity party, Filipaj relentlessly forged ahead, pursuing his vision with reckless abandon. And he has no intention of slowing down now.
“I would say that I have fulfilled half of my dream — going to graduate school would complete it,” he said.
Throughout my career, I’ve been constantly told all the things I lack. I live in Detroit instead of Silicon Valley or New York. I didn’t go to Stanford or Harvard. I don’t have a degree in computer science. Starting out as a jazz musician, I didn’t have the right connections.
All these observations are correct. Yet what the detractors discounted the most was pure old-fashioned grit. Lucky for us all, grit doesn’t come from social class or some exclusive country club. In fact, grit is the great equalizer. It’s what allows ordinary people to do extraordinary things.
A vision for positive change combined with commitment, persistence and resiliency has been the winning formula for nearly all human progress. We all crave for a better world. Let’s use Filipaj’s example of grit and determination as a springboard for change.
The possibilities are limitless if we’re willing to do whatever it takes to seize them.